No, Gay Marriage Wasn't a Conservative Win

Conservative Michael Gerson damns the Supreme Court as an "unrepresentative clique of lawyers," while also trying to pretend gay people want to marry because conservatives convinced them sexual liberation was wrong.

According to Gerson, the gay community fought for marriage because

public intellectuals such as Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan... urged gays to embrace the conventional, bourgeois practice of marriage. What had seemed to many Americans a sexual liberationist movement requested access to the institution designed to limit sexual freedom for the sake of social order and effective child-rearing (while delivering joys that arise only out of commitment).

Most gay people will be surprised, because relatively few have heard of Rauch and Sullivan. Rauch seems more libertarian than conservative and Sullivan has no consistent viewpoint other than admiration for Sullivan. It just isn't true that a couple of "public intellectuals" changed the community, nor is it true there is a conflict between the sexual liberation of the early gay rights movement and marriage.

Sexual liberation for gays was first and foremost about decriminalizing homosexuality. It would be ludicrous to spend much time worrying about marriage when your mere existence was a crime in most states. This is not to say the gay community didn't discuss the marriage issue; some gay couples sought the right to marry soon after homosexuality was decriminalized.

That conservatives such as Gerson didn't notice it, doesn't mean it didn't happen. Gay couples have been fighting for the right to marry for decades; it isn't some new fad. It was happening before any "public intellectual" was willing to take a stand on the issue.

Only after homosexuality was decriminalized could same-sex couples settle down with the security of knowing they wouldn't be arrested merely for loving someone. Once liberation came, people were free to seek relationships without threat of incarceration. That is precisely what they did. This is not to say gay couples never had done so before, but being open in the past was a risky affair at best.

As these couples, accustomed to fighting for their rights, experienced a relationship, they discovered the state was still inhibiting and harming gay people. They learned the hard way that the inability to marry could inflict real damage, so they fought back.

When their beloved was hospitalized they found themselves excluded because they weren't family. When a medical decision had to be made they discovered distant relatives could make that decision, but they couldn't. Some even found that when their spouse died they weren't even allowed to claim the body for burial. They were legal strangers.

When Patrick Atkins had a stroke and was incapacitated, his lover of 25 years, Brett Conrad, rushed to his side. So did Patrick's anti-gay mother. She banned Conrad from the hospital. She claimed custodial rights as next of kin, something Brett couldn't do. She took Patrick away so Brett couldn't see him. She confiscated Patrick's business, bank accounts and the house he and Brett had shared, evicting Brett.

When Conrad fought for his partner in the courts the judge sympathized but said his hands were tied because the couple was not allowed to marry.

I remember my moment of enlightenment on marriage rights. I was living overseas and in a committed relationship. After three armed attacks I had to leave. I could return to the U.S., but my partner could not come with me. Had we been allowed to marry, there would have been an option. The law left us none.

In the reality of day-to-day living, gay couples saw the results of not being allowed to marry. They tried to create patches through private contracts, but found that option unaffordable. Even those patches were no guarantee. Law gives presumptions to families. Marriage hands those presumptions to your family of choice -- your spouse. Wills can be challenged by family arguing "undue influence."

Some couples brought with them children from previous relationships, or that one of them adopted. They might be together for years when one dies, and the other discovers he has no parental rights to the child he was parenting. The kids could be packed up and sent off to some distant relative they've never met.

Gay people started demanding marriage because "patches" didn't work. Government was impeding the well-being of their relationship by forbidding equal access to the protections of marriage. They demanded marriage because of real-life experiences, not the writings of public intellectuals.

Public intellectuals added to the debate, but didn't sway the LGBT community from "sexual liberation" to marriage. Sexual liberation merely allowed gays to form relationships and the natural progress is to seek long-term or permanent relationships. Gay couples discovered all sorts of legal problems marriage would have solved for them. They started demanding marriage because practical experiences taught them the alternative wasn't a good one.

As someone who has followed the debate within the LGBT community, something Gerson never did, I saw the issue evolve because of practical experiences of gay couples. Public intellectuals were pretty much inconsequential in that evolution.